Lesson #40 – The Whole Truth and Nothing But

–Leaders are radically honest with themselves and others

I graduated from West Point, the United States Military academy. There was a simple rule there that if you ever lie, cheat, or steal even once, or tolerate someone who does then you are thrown out.

Having made it through four years without ever having lied, cheated, or stolen, I considered myself an honest man. Then, in my first seminar with my mentor, Tom, the group I was in was asked to go around and tell people what really exciting result each of us wanted to create out of the weekend seminar (equivalent to our Personal Mastery weekend today).

What I really wanted was a wildly romantic long lasting relationship, but I noticed I was telling people that I wanted to be better organized. Since I really did want to be more organized, it wasn’t technically lying, but it also was not the truth.

There are many ways we hide from the truth. Being rigorously honest with yourself and others is key to leadership.
Many people will fudge the truth all the time, especially if it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. Many people compromise honesty when the business results they expect are not there. They fail to tell the truth, believing that the truth will hurt them, but then the wrong adjustments are made by management because of inaccurate information.

In politics, so few people tell the truth that the majority of people are cynical and don’t even bother with the process. In a personal setting, we don’t tell the truth to ourselves and we fail to make the necessary adjustments to get our life on track.

One way to fudge the truth is to simply not give honest feedback, whether to others or ourselves. There are people who never make an asset and liability statement up because they are afraid of the answer. They never go get a medical check-up because they are afraid of the answer. They never asked a spouse a difficult question because they don’t want to grapple with the possible conflict it will unearth.

CEOs and managers seldom ask for input from employees or clients in order to avoid having to deal with the feedback. As a manager, you may ask someone on your team, “How many phone calls did you make?” The person may fudge the truth by being vague and say, “A lot.” You then try and get more specific and ask, “How many calls is ‘a lot’?” The person says, “25.” Then you ask, “Were those all live calls or were some of those left messages?”

Leaders are not only honest themselves, but they train their people to be rigorously honest and to be proactive with the truth and to not be afraid of the truth. It is the only way proper course corrections can be made.

Like everything else, honesty has both benefits and prices. The prices to honesty should not be ignored. This does not mean you tell everything to everybody. Nor does it mean you relieve your guilt by sharing something from your past in a relationship that has no current relevance.

It does mean being honest in your assessment of the prices and benefits. How honest have you been on a scale of 1-10 in the last year? What is your commitment for this next week with the people at work, home, and the community?

Honesty is a matter of both being truthful in what you say AND in the full disclosure around a topic. Leaders create an environment where people feel safe enough to be honest and train their people to tell the truth.

Action Step #1

Spend 10 minutes making a list of what you have been pretending not to know in your personal and professional life.

Action Step #2

Ask your most significant personal and professional relationship what he or she has been afraid to tell you. Ask that person what consequence he or she was afraid would happen that they were trying to avoid.

An Example

I had an employee who had done a good job for us for a number of years, but due to changing circumstances in the person’s life and in our company’s needs, the individual was no longer performing up to standard.

For many months we on the management team would make comments, but no one had that honest, tough conversation with the individual. We did not want to admit that at some level we had failed the employee. It hurt our ego.

Everyone would give input to the individual on what to do differently, but everything was met with resistance. No one had the big discussion: “Is it time for you to move on?”

We conned ourselves in a dozen ways. We told ourselves we were good and could turn the person around. We said it was a temporary problem and the person needed space. On and on.

There is a technical, psychological term for this: Cognitive Dissonance. That’s where our beliefs and behavior do not match up. The phenomenon is that people suppress certain aspects or facts of reality because if they told the truth to themselves it would hurt their self image.

When we finally sat with this individual and confronted the big question, we still deluded ourselves and gave the person another year to change. We did not want to face reality.

Another year later we had the discussion and the person moved on and was actually relieved. That person had also not wanted to tell the truth about the changes that had occurred and had covered up the truth with feelings of guilt for thinking of leaving.
Once the final decision had been made, literally everyone, including this person, was much better off.

“As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of demand”
–Josh Billings

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